For sports fans in India, the Jakarta Asian Games yielded an extraordinary moment the day Neeraj Chopra won his gold, head and shoulders above everyone in the competition. The Bronze medal winner was Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem. In a moment perfectly captured by a photographer whose identity remains unknown, people of both countries learnt what it is to be a sportsperson. We found out that the spirit of sportsmanship far transcends the politically divisive barriers that have long been set up by persons acting out of selfish interests from both countries.
At that moment, India’s Neeraj Chopra and Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem would display mutual respect for each other and their talents. While the picture caught the fancy of people on social media, sportspersons of either country were left unimpressed. “This is a very common sight in these major tournaments,” said Indian Olympic shooter Joydeep Karmakar. “India and Pakistan have always been ‘friends’ when participating in multi games tournaments. Hence this is not a very uncommon picture for us.”
The learning lesson from this incident is that staying in our respective bubbles may have polarised us and turned us blind to the fact that these are two countries with a shared history – not just political but ethnic and cultural as well. Over the years, political parties have attempted to get that extra political mileage by demonising Pakistan and, admittedly, the converse has also been true. This perverse display of “nationalism” has invaded the world of sports as well. A clash between India and Pakistan in any game is never just a game. It becomes a national spectacle with the masses being more attached than usual when it comes to the results. The term “arch-rivals” has gained traction with the way it is used to describe a sportsperson or a team from Pakistan. The stories of thumping victories and humiliating losses are of national importance.
But this is the scenario that we, as Indians sitting in India, get to witness. Have you ever wondered what the other side of the spectrum looks like through the eyes of a sportsperson?
The Bridge tried finding out as we spoke to medalists from Pakistan to get a sense of what these medals mean for them and for the state of sports back in their country.
“Indians and Pakistanis can benefit from each other,” says Arshad Nadeem, the bronze medal-winning Javelin thrower to The Bridge. “Of all the athletes I met at the Asian Games they treated me so well, they congratulated me, and this was something eye-opening, off the field we are all friends.”
Arshad added that more training would have been helpful, but he only got a month to prepare for the Asian Games. He hoped the medal would open up more opportunities for him. As for being competitive with the neighbours, he feels it is all about challenging oneself.
“On the podium, it felt like I belonged there,” he added. “At that moment it wasn’t just about the competition. I was telling Neeraj Chopra, who finished with Gold, that it was great to see him hit that mark.”
“He congratulated me in return, telling me that he understands what this medal means to me, what it must mean for Pakistan to win it in an athletics event.”
This mutual admiration is what it truly means to be a sportsperson. Objectively speaking, your benchmark for excellence should trump your zeal for beating one particular country. All that enthusiasm surrounding a single entity or team might win you an inconsequential battle but will the bigger war be overcome? Does targetting an only country really benefit Indian sports in any way?
Sports has often helped build bridges between two nations at times when politics just couldn’t or refused to. Looking at cricket alone, Team India’s historic tour of Pakistan way back in 2004 is a shining example of this. Moving a little beyond India and Pakistan, leaders of South Korea and North Korea were able to reach a common ground as they decided to field combined teams at the Winter Olympics and the Asian Games earlier this year.
Like India achieved landmarks at the Jakarta Games, athletes from Pakistan created history as well. One of them, Nargis, won the country’s first ever Karate medal. But even in her moment of glory, she took a minute to appreciate the fact that sometimes the barriers we make are purely in our minds.
“I went to India for a championship, and I was amazed to see how Indian’s were praising Saadi Abbas at the time, they were encouraging us as well,” she told us
“I feel training with Indian martial artists can help us, it is closer to us in many ways, but all of the problems is more on the government level. I saw how Indian athletes are performing at the Asian games, and they are getting that exposure, it is inspiring for us too, as sportspeople,” Nargis added.
Perhaps one of the biggest shocks India got was the absence of a Gold medal in Kabaddi- a sport that they had hitherto dominated since its existence in the Asian Games. Over the years, the game has seen some intense rivalries on the international stage, but the men’s teams of both countries had to settle for Bronze after underperforming in the tournament. For most Indians, the Bronze hurt less than the fact that we were at the same level as Pakistan as some comments on social media proved.
“It is a part of the game, winning losing, but overall the experience was great. I was hoping that we could play final against India, that would have been special,” says Waseem Sajjad, an integral part of the Pakistan Men’s Kabaddi team.
“Other countries are getting better at the Asian style kabaddi because they are very professional about it. We thought that the final would be between India and Pakistan, but then Korea and Iran played it. It only shows that other nations are improving fast.”
Sajjad had also played two seasons of kabaddi league with Patna Pirates, and he reminisced about his time there in 2014 and 2015.
“More than anything else, we bond over kabaddi too,” he says.
“I got to captain Patna Pirates, and that meant so much. On the international level when we play against India, it is more about the emotion. But we learn from each other too.”
“There should be more tournaments between India and Pakistan, especially of Asian style kabaddi than our traditional circle style, for both countries to catch up with teams like Korea and Iran now,” he adds.
Ultimately, sports gives us hope. For a practice that celebrates man’s achievements rather than focus on his faults, this is one positive takeaway that we can choose to focus on when it comes to Pakistan.
Ultimately, we’re not that different.